WASHINGTON — The Southern Nevada branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs says it does not believe it is a target of misconduct investigations taking place across the country, and lawmakers from Nevada say they have not been told otherwise.
The VA inspector general confirmed on Tuesday that 26 medical centers and clinics are being investigated following allegations that waiting times for appointments were being manipulated to hide long delays in providing care to patients. The scandal emerged from accusations that 40 veterans died after being unable to get timely treatment at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix.
Similar allegations have arisen at VA facilities in Texas, Florida, Colorado and Wyoming. The VA operates 153 medical centers, with at least one in each state, and 909 ambulatory care and outpatient clinics.
A growing furor over veterans’ health care prompted President Barack Obama to declare Wednesday that allegations of misconduct at VA hospitals are “dishonorable” and will not be tolerated by his administration.
“I will not stand for it — not as commander in chief but also not as an American,” Obama said following an Oval Office meeting with embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
“We are going to fix whatever is wrong and so long as I have the privilege of serving as commander in chief, I’m going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that you and your families deserve, now and for decades to come,” said Obama, who has dispatched White House aide Rob Nabors to the VA to oversee a review of policies.
Reached late Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the VA Office of Inspector General wouldn’t say if the 26 facilities now being investigated for irregularities includes any in Nevada. Asked whether the VA’s hospital in North Las Vegas or any local clinic was being examined, Richard Beam, a spokesman for the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, said “No, that we have been made aware of.”
In Washington, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not been made aware of potential record-tampering or other misconduct allegations involving VA facilities in the state, according to a spokeswoman.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., has asked the VA if any Nevada facilities are being investigated and has yet to receive a reply, his spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Heller said Wednesday he was not impressed with Obama’s remarks, coming two weeks after allegations of VA irregularities began coming to light.
“Veterans have been told for far too long that things will get better in the future, and the president’s remarks today were more of the same,” Heller said. “He and his administration have shown very little proof that they are willing to step up to the challenge of addressing the real, pervasive problems plaguing the VA.
“While it is good to see the President start to get engaged, his remarks today were long overdue and fell short of what our nation’s veterans needed to hear in order to restore their faith in this system,” Heller said.
At a May 15 hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Shinseki told Heller he had not heard of complaints regarding appointment scheduling at the Southern Nevada VA hospital, in North Las Vegas, and was not aware of allegations concerning record-doctoring in the state.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who sits on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in an interview Tuesday she has spoken with Isabel Duff, the director of the Southern Nevada Healthcare System, and other local VA officials about potential scheduling irregularities, “and they swear there isn’t.”
Titus said she is seeking data from the VA in Southern Nevada on its scheduling practices to confirm for herself. Additionally, the North Las Vegas hospital was expected to be included in a “face to face” audit of scheduling that Shinseki announced on May 8 to cover “all clinics for every VA medical center.”
Following Obama’s remarks, Titus called for the VA investigations to be conducted “as quickly as possible.
“Our nation’s heroes deserve to know all the facts without delay,” she said. “We must be swift, but fair, to ensure that all those at the VA are working to provide the best services possible for our nation’s heroes. And if they aren’t, they need to go.”
The North Las Vegas medical center, which opened in August 2012, is not without its problems. Administrators acknowledge that wait times for veterans to schedule cataract surgery average six months, and patients needing hip or knee replacements can wait four to six months. There also are long wait times for appointments to see a dermatologist, podiatrist and an ear, nose and throat doctor.
Also, an inspector general investigation released last month concluded the hospital’s emergency department has problems keeping up with patient traffic. It said the hospital was failing to meet its target for less than 10 percent of patients to wait more than six hours for emergency care.
The investigation was prompted by the case of Sandi Niccum, a 78-year-old blind Navy veteran suffering from a painful stomach ailment who waited close to five hours to see a doctor on Oct. 22, 2013. Auditors found Niccum was not rechecked periodically during her wait as required by hospital procedure.
VA officials have acknowledged shortcomings in the North Las Vegas facility they contend still is dealing with startup pains. But the Southern Nevada VA insists it does not cook the books to mask long waits for care.
“Our policy for waitlists is clear. EVERYTHING MUST BE RECORDED using our electronic wait lists,” Beam said in an email earlier this month, capitalizing letters for emphasis.
Obama on Wednesday spoke hours before the House was scheduled to vote on a bill that would grant the VA secretary more authority to fire or demote senior executives. The White House has said it shares the goals of the House measure — to ensure accountability at the VA — but has concerns about some of the details.
Meanwhile, two Republican senators introduced legislation to prohibit payment of bonuses to employees at the Veterans Health Administration through next year. Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Deb Fischer of Nebraska said the VA should focus its spending on fixing problems at the agency, “not rewarding employees entrenched in a failing bureaucracy.”
The House passed a bill in February that would eliminate performance bonuses for the department’s senior executive staff through 2018.
Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, also called on Obama to back off plans to nominate Jeffrey Murawsky to replace the VA’s undersecretary for health care, Robert Petzel, who has stepped down. Murawsky, a career VA administrator, directly supervised Helman from 2010 to 2012.
The White House has said Obama is standing behind Murawsky’s nomination.
Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at STetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.